Another Mystery Bottle from Haiti…

Originally posted 19 June 2012

A reader from Florida sent a picture of this bottle, which is labeled in French “Celebration du Cap.” It appears to be an old Barbancourt bottle that has been relabeled, a common practice a few decades ago when many small distilleries couldn’t afford to buy stocks of new bottles.


As you can see, the label has been professionally but crudely printed. Given the “Celebration of the Cape” wording, my guess is that this was a special bottling for some festival or other event. Has anybody out there seen anything like it, and do you know how old this might be? Please let me know, and I will post any information I receive.

I will be posting only sporadically for the next week or so, as I have speaking engagements in New York and Washington. My lecture on rum for the Culinary Historians of Washington received excellent preview coverage in the Washington Post, so we are hoping for a good crowd. If any readers of this site show up at that event, please come and introduce yourself – I like meeting people who care about food, drink, history, and anthropology.

And more on temperance songs, with recording!

Originally posted 13 June 2012

The overwrought style of most early temperance songs is laughable nowadays, but some had interesting lyrics and catchy tunes. They were pop songs, designed to appeal to Victorian sentiments. The Hutchinson Family were rock stars of their day, and this ticket from an 1843 concert at the Howard Street Tabernacle in Boston gives you a sense of how the Rolling Stones might have been marketed if they had come along 130 years early.


Their lyrics are pretty good – consider this sample from “King Alcohol”:

“King Alcohol is very sly, a demon from the first, He’ll make you drink until you’re dry, then drink because you thirst.”

It would be interesting to know how this group sounded, but they flourished long before the era of recording equipment. There are later versions of their songs, but even the first recordings may not sound anything like the original because by the time Edison cylinders were available, tastes had changed. As an example of this, you might listen to the earliest recording of another temperance favorite, “Father’s A Drunkard and Mother Is Dead.” The earliest recording I have been able to find is from 1929, and it was performed by Walter Coon as a singsong country blues. You can listen to it here.

Not only was this tune written for a woman’s voice rather than a man’s, a look at the original sheet music shows that the tune was completely different. Here is a modern recording in something closer to the original style:

This is a very raw recording by the Foss Household Temperance Band (Elizabeth Rose-Marini on vocals, Professor Simon Spalding on octar, Richard Foss on mandolin). We played this take only a few hours after looking at the sheet music for the first time, so the rendition is far from perfect. Even so, you can hear that the tune is more ornate than the better-known version, and Ms. Rose-Marini sounds much more like a starving orphan girl than Mr. Coon. It’s the sound of another era, earnest and naive and dedicated to ending the evil reign of demon rum. If you’d like to see the lyrics so you can sing along, they are in an older post on this site.


Cold Water versus Hot Liquor

Originally posted 12 June 2012

From the 1700’s to the late nineteenth century, rum was seen as a healthful beverage, and when the Temperance movement launched their campaign against strong drink they were out of the cultural mainstream. A measure of this is seen in the language of the Temperance Battle Hymn, published in 1889:


“Stand up for the cold water fight, Against doctor and lawyer and priest,

Stand up and do battle for right, Against foes from the west or the east.”

Doctors, lawyers, and priests were indeed the foe – lawyers because they prosecuted those who vandalized saloons, priests because Catholics used wine as a sacrament, but the matter of doctors is more complicated. Some doctors did regard rum as good by itself to “calm the nerves,” but many more used alcohol as a base for medicines. The chemistry of the time had no better way of extracting the essence of some herbs or as a base for compounds, and popular remedies such as Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound were 18% alcohol, or 36 proof. Those who eschewed alcohol in all forms did have other options, but those often contained mercury, opium, strychnine, and other virulent poisons. A sensible person might decide that they would get at least as much relief from a glass of rum with lime and sugar, and much more enjoyment from the experience.


Rum’s Hawaiian Cousin

Originally posted 11 June 2012

The natives of Hawaii made alcohol from the leaves and roots of the ti plant – not the same plant that was used to make the drink famed in India and China, but one indigenous to the islands. The knowledge of distilling arrived with the Europeans, along with the containers to boil large amounts of liquid – the pots used by whalers to render whale blubber into oil.


As you can see, these pots have one flat side, a design that allowed them both to fit easily into a ship’s hold and to sit close to each other over a fire. The whalers were only in the islands for a few months a year, and the rest of the time the Hawaiians used them to make rum from the sugar that had been introduced by Europeans. To the Hawaiians, the two pots close together looked like someone’s backside, and the pots were given the name “okolehao,” which is usually translated as “Iron Buttocks.” A liquor made from a mix of distilled ti leaves with sugar became known by the same name, and is still made by a small commercial distillery on the island of Maui. It is recognizably a rum with flowery overtones, and well worth trying if you are in the Islands. It is no longer made in the old style, with the whalepots attached to crude copper tubes to create alembic stills, but it’s still a taste of another time and place.


The evils of grog…

Originally posted 06 June 2012

I enjoy the florid writing style of the Victorian era, which is never so vivid as when a writer was denouncing other people’s moral failings. Consider this example from the article ‘Our Social Position: Baneful Effects of Sly-grog Selling’ (1857), which is about the illegal taverns in Australia:

“Sly-grog shops are positively the curse of the country, and to these dens of infamy and shame can many a single hearted youth trace the ruin of his character, and his initiation into every species of evil and immorality.  At these places will be found congregated the known thieves and blackguards of a district; there they inveigle the unthinking, induce the habit of rum-drinking, and at last lead them from one illegal act to another, until the scholar becomes as proficient as the master in the practice of robbery and stealing the property of others.”

Modern writing is usually more dispassionate and factual, but rarely as fun to read.

The Restaurants That Flew and Floated: Flying Boats

Zeppelins were the cruise ships of the skies, and offered unparalleled space for passengers to stroll and sightsee, but their competitors the flying boats managed to almost equal them at mealtime. Look at this picture of dinner aboard a Boeing B-314, which was probably taken in about 1939:

Courtesy Foynes Flying Boat Museum

Courtesy Foynes Flying Boat Museum

Though the aircraft had cabins and beds for up to 36 passengers, including a deluxe bridal suite, only fourteen people at a time could enjoy the hospitality of the dining room at once. A modern airline executive would look at this picture and figure out how to pack as many people as possible into the space, but in those genteel times it was accepted that passengers would dine in shifts, served by two formally dressed stewards. The tablecloths were linen, the utensils genuine china, crystal, and freshly polished silver.There were no spacious piano bars or lounges as were available on the zeppelins, but the trip across the Atlantic took a mere seventeen hours instead of three days.

Flying Boats circled the world – Imperial Airways flew across Africa, zigzagging between rivers and oceans for landings, and in partnership with Qantas operated services from London to Australia. Qantas boasted about the quality of their inflight meals with this jolly advertisement:

Courtesy Qantas archives

Courtesy Qantas archives

Other flying boat services linked cities in South America, island-hopped across the Pacific, and connected Dutch colonies in Indonesia with the motherland. The flying boat era lasted   longer than you might expect – TEAL, the predecessor to Air New Zealand, continued to fly Short Solent flying boats between Auckland and Pago Pago until 1960. It was a quaint way to travel, the first age of international travel surviving into the jet age, and when it ended something wonderful was lost.


Knowledge of geography optional…

Originally posted 01 June 2012

I have another example of how historical research can lead you down all sorts of unexpected avenues. In my first post about the mysterious initials on First World War rum jugs, I mentioned the supposition that they stood for Special Red Demerara. As far as I can tell, this theory was first proposed in an article in a Toronto’s National Post that was published on March 17, 2000. On a second reading of the original story, something about the quote caught my attention.

“It was a potent weapon of the First World War, and for Canadian soldiers entrenched on the Western Front it arrived each week in gallon jars marked with the letters S.R.D.-Special Red Demerara, 86-proof Jamaican rum.”

Demerara rum comes from Guyana, not Jamaica, so the author seems to have a rather hazy idea of geography. Another aspect of the article also seemed suspect; if this rum was made in such vast quantities that it could supply an entire army, why hadn’t I come across any other reference to it? I decided to contact Demerara Distillers of Guyana to find out whether such any rum from the region was ever designated “Special Red,” Mr. Ian Lye responded to my inquiry, and said that as far as the home office could determine, no rum has been made under that marque. Their research continues, and if they do find any record of such a brand, I will report it here.

There is a rum from Demerara that does have those S.R.D. initials, the Special Reserve Demerara, but that very fine beverage is produced in tiny quantities and would better fit an officer’s table than that of a common serviceman. I would raise a haughty eyebrow at the shoddy standards of journalism had I not been a member of the profession myself for many years – I have been caught in an error once or twice too, and have compassion for anyone who tries to give historical context while on a deadline.


In honor of Boston rum…

Originally posted 31 May 2012

The theme of today’s post is Boston, where Felton & Sons made rum for centuries in this building:

feltonsdistillery_03Felton and Sons sold the building to the Mr. Boston company, which continued making rum there until the 1980’s. While doing so they distributed tens of thousands of copies of the Mr. Boston’s Bar Guide, and those little red books are part of many amateur bartenders’ collection.

The city of Boston is being celebrated because my book just received a wonderful review in the Boston Globe. I am grateful for the attention the book has been getting, and thank everyone who has reviewed it in newspapers, their blog posts, and on Amazon. I don’t have a big advertising budget, and even if I did, I could not replicate the honest actions of people who just write about what they like. I am sure that most authors feel the same way that I do, but unlike many of them I have a place to say it. Thank you.


The Minneapolis Mystery Bottles

Originally posted 29 May 2012

A reader named Joe sent this picture of a pair of rum bottles that raise some interesting questions. They are dated 1943 and contained Cuban rum “flavored with aromatics.”


They were imported by the Loucraft Corporation and bottled by Distillers Sales Company, and have the Courtesy Club trademark. Courtesy Club was primarily a whiskey distributor – this is their only association with rum that I have found. What I find most interesting are the words “flavored with aromatics” on the label. That implies that this was a spiced rum, and according to most sources, the first branded spiced rum to be marketed outside the Caribbean was Captain Morgan, which started production in 1944.

Whatever was in these bottles, they were a product of interesting times. The ships that carried them dodged U-boats to voyage from the sunny islands to the midwestern plains, the crew risking their lives to deliver a cargo of spirits. They sailed in the wakes of 18th Century pirates, Confederate blockade runners, and 20th Century bootleggers, and who can say whether they followed the traditions of merchantmen before them and tapped just a few bottles for the crew’s mess?

If you know anything about these bottles and the liquid they once contained, please send an email – Joe and I are both very curious to know more of the story.

Rum, Whiskey, Indians, and Commerce

Originally posted 28 May 2012

I’m going to make up for a few days away from my computer with a longish post that may not fully explain a tangled subject, but might shine a light on the more interesting loops in the knots. To start, the text of a grievance sent by Iroquois Chief Scarrooyady to the Governor of Pennsylvania on October 3, 1753:

“Your Traders now bring scarce anything but Rum and Flour; they bring little powder and lead, or other valuable goods. The Rum ruins us. We beg you would prevent its coming such quantities by regulating the Traders. We never understood the Trade was to be for Whiskey and Flour. We desire it may be forbidden, and none sold in the Indian Country; but if the Indians will have any they may go among the inhabitants and deal with them for it. When these Whiskey Traders come, They bring thirty or forty kegs and put them down before us and make us drink, and get all the skins that should go to pay the debts we have contracted for goods bought of the Fair Traders; by this means we not only ruin ourselves but them too. These wicked Whiskey Sellers, when they have once got the Indians in liquor, make them sell their very clothes from their backs. In short, if this practice be continued, we must be inevitably ruined.

The first thing to note is that the chief refers to rum and whiskey interchangeably throughout the letter; to him they were essentially the same thing – raw alcohols that had been minimally improved by aging. This is an example of the problem with tracing the rum trade on the frontier, since traders might take one distilled alcohol on one journey, a different one on the next outing, and not record the difference. The participants on both sides of the trade were indiscriminate and vague about their terminology.

Second, modern people who learn about the trade with the natives often focus on the fact that an intoxicating liquor was the medium of exchange with a people who were unused to its effects. This ignores a pivotal fact: that alcohol was the principal barter item between the colonists too. As I detail in the book (you do have a copy, don’t you?) the colonies were chronically short of coinage, and rum was the common currency for all kinds of transactions. The Europeans who traded with the Iroquois may have taken advantage of the fact that the natives were poor bargainers when intoxicated, but this was probably an unintended by-product of their economic system.

I don’t have a good picture of actual Iroquois of this period, but you may enjoy this circus poster from the 1890’s.


I presume that this image answers your questions.